Coming soon, in the first few weeks of March, Tony Gebley and his partner, Erin Murphy will be opening the doors online to Chicago’s latest tea merchant – Chicago Tea Garden (you can also keep track of Tony’s progress with his business on twitter, @worldoftea). To celebrate this, we’ve received a sampling from them of a Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea. This tea is a competition-grade Oolong from Anxi County, China. According to Tony, this tea was sourced by the infamous American tea guru, David Lee Hoffman from one of the organizers of the Chinese National Tea Competition. This particular tea is part of Mr Hoffman’s prized Phoenix Collection. Chicago Tea Garden is making this special tea available to American tea drinkers where it will retail at $14.99 for 50 grams and will be available online. Newer tea drinkers may feel this is expensive, but it’s really an excellent example of the accessibility that comes with fine, upper-level teas.

This particular Oolong is very much considered a fine tea, and those 50 grams will easily give you upwards to 50 cups of tea or more with resteepings. A typical teaspoon measurement holds about 3 grams of tea so you’ll get about 16 initial cups, but due to the hardiness and quality of the leaves, this tea can be resteeped 3-4 times. We found that one measurement of this tea resteeped well enough to keep our cups full for an entire afternoon.

Tie Guan Yin is a historical tea and was used as a tribute tea to the Royal Court. It is often translated as, “Iron Goddess of Mercy” and is a reference to the Buddhist goddess of love which is associated with the legend behind this tea’s birth.

The packaging

Chicago Tea Garden has given a lot of thought to the customer experience; it shows not only in the tea, but also in the packaging and inserts that the customer receives. Even the outside of the mailing box is rubber-stamped, in large letters, “Your Tea is Here!” This is was a small, inexpensive, but nice touch that showed the personal handling that Tony and Erin will be putting into their products. Inside the box was the usual steeping guide that many merchants include, but more important was an information card with details about the tea. It included a description of the history of it and a brief blurb about the tea leaves. The reverse side of the card is labeled, “Tasting Notes” and is lined for you to conveniently jot down your thoughts. Chicago Tea Garden will be including one of these information cards with each tea they sell.

The tea itself comes packaged in a tin with a rubber seal. The well-designed label is printed on a standard office label printer and features a close-up image of the dry leaves.

What we saw in this tea

The dry leaves are a colorful array of greens and blacks and rolled into tight balls. The smell is vegetal and pleasantly inviting. It is distinctly floral, fresh and fragrant. The complex smell of the dry leaves later translated perfectly into the cup upon brewing. As can be seen in the picture above, the leaves opened up to reveal numerous full leaves. Looking at them, it is easy to see how this tea can support multiple steepings. The majority of the individual leaves are large in size; they look and feel thick, full-grown and strong, but not overly mature – a sign that they were picked at a particular time from healthy plants.

The finished tea is light in color with a generally light body on the tongue. The aroma retains the strong and inviting floral/vegetal hints. There is absolutely nothing off-putting about this tea. Cheaper Oolongs sometimes have a vegetal scent that can be unpleasant, but this absolutely says, “drink me.” The taste is complex, floral and fresh in the mouth. The liquor is light with a refreshingly sweet main body taste. The aftertaste is pleasant and slightly sweet. This is a strong Oolong with a full flavor that we found complements food amazingly well. Near the end of our tasting, one of our tasters pulled a few random things off the shelf and we all ended up being wonderfully surprised.

The food pairing

We drank this tea with some German butter biscuits/cookies and some white, extra sharp cheddar cheese. The lightly sweet cookies with their crisp texture, combined with the strong, savory cheese are already a perfect pairing. Washed down with this complex and flavorful tea, the layered combination of flavors makes a snack that is difficult to match. Often, when simple things are paired with finer things, the result is surprisingly great–this was no exception. A platter of savory cheeses, a plate of light cookies and a pot of this tea will make a excellent refreshment to serve to favored friends and guests.